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Voluptuous Philosophy

Literary Materialism in the French Enlightenment

Natania Meeker

Publication Year: 2007

Eighteenth-century France witnessed the rise of matter itself-in forms ranging from atoms to anatomies-as a privileged object of study. Voluptuous Philosophy redefines what is at stake in the emergence of an enlightened secular materialism by showing how questions of figure-how should a body be represented? What should the effects of this representation be on readers?-are tellingly and consistently located at the very heart of 18th-century debates about the nature of material substance. French materialisms of the Enlightenment are crucially invested not only in the development of a sophisticated theoretical apparatus around the notion of matter but in the production of specific relationships between readers and the matterof the texts that they consume. How, the book asks, did the period's fascination with a markedly immaterial and ephemeral event-the reading of works of fiction-come to coincide with what appears to be a gradual materialization of human subjects: men and women who increasingly manage to envision themselves transfigured, as the century wears on, into machines, animals, and even, in the work of the Marquis de Sade, tables and chairs? In what way did the spread of new philosophies of matter depend upon the ability of readers to perceive certain figures of speech as literally and immediately true-to imagine themselves as fully material bodies even as they found themselves most deeply compelled by disembodied literary forms? More broadly, in what sense does the act of reading literature alter and transfigure our perceptions of what is, and can be, real? Voluptuous Philosophy articulates the gradual coming into being of literature as a distinct arena of textual production with the rise of an enlightened reader who remains abstracted from the bodily symptoms that any given piece of writing may induce in him. The very definition of the literaryas an autonomous field, this book suggests, may, ironically, be dependent upon the simultaneous construction of a material world that remains fully immune to its effects.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This book finds its origins in an attempt to think through the role played by literature and literary forms of writing in the development of enlightened materialist philosophy. In arguing for the centrality of the experience of poetically induced pleasure to the history of French materialism, I aim to...


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-16

Immanuel Kant’s famous essay ‘‘An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?’’ (1784) ends with an oblique reference to the enduringly scandalous materialism of Julien Offray de la Mettrie, author of the treatise Machine Man (1747). Kant writes: ‘‘When nature has . . . developed the seed...

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1. Voluptuous Figures: Lucretian Materialism in Eighteenth-Century France

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pp. 17-58

In the ‘‘Discours pre´liminaire’’ prefacing his 1768 translation of Lucretius’s De rerum natura, Charles-Joseph Panckoucke describes the poem as ‘‘the boldest work that any human being had ever dared compose.’’2 Panckoucke was not alone in this assessment, since an explicit commitment to the voluptuous...

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2. Reading for Pleasure in the French Enlightenment: The Self-Possessed Reader and the Decline of Voluptas

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pp. 59-87

The power of Lucretius to incite the passions of his readers seems to be on the wane in the last decades of the eighteenth century. In presenting to a cultivated audience a Lucretius stripped of his intimately suasive force, the translations of De rerum natura that appear in the 1760s reflect a significant transformation in Enlightenment understandings of the ways in which relationships...

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3. ‘‘Flowers Strewn on the Way to Volupte´’’:La Mettrie and the Tropic Body of the Epicurean Philosopher

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pp. 88-125

La Mettrie’s machine-man has often served as a figure of determinist constraint, steeped in the robotic satisfactions of the literal.1 Brought into being in 1747 by ‘‘Monsieur Machine’’ (as La Mettrie was dubbed by his contemporaries), this creature seems to foretell the advent of a dystopian modernity ordered around the perfect instrumentalization of the body and its pleasures...

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4. ‘‘I Resist It No Longer’’: Thérèse philosophe and the Compulsions of Enlightened Literary Materialism

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pp. 126-154

The philosophical Thérèse, eponymous heroine of the novel commonly attributed to the marquis d’Argens,1 brings to vivid life the joys of materialist doctrine as an incitement to erotic expression. She has accordingly come to function, in modern criticism, as a feminine counterpart to machine-man— his ideal companion in the voluptuous delights to be derived from the practice...

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5. Dynamism and Disinterest: The Materialist Reader and Diderot’s Dream

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pp. 155-188

If there is one eighteenth-century materialist whose work appears to stand at the juncture of literature and philosophy—a writer who most impressively seems to occupy the space where the pleasures of figure intersect with a dynamic and hedonic materialist science—it is Denis Diderot. Not coincidentally...

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6. ‘‘A Fallacious and Always Perilous Metaphysic’’:The Sadean Critique of Sentiment and the Neo-Lucretian Novel

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pp. 189-221

While for Lucretius the materialist subject is crafted from the ‘‘pleasant honey’’ of poetic speech, for the marquis de Sade it is the novel that serves as both scene and guiding mechanism of this construction. Recent scholarship has emphasized the permeation of the Sadean literary corpus by the characteristic tropes of what Caroline Warman, in her study of the intellectual...

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pp. 222-224

I have attempted to show, in this book, how the rhetorical techniques regularly recognized as central to Enlightenment materialisms—techniques built upon the assumption of an extradiscursive reality that is brought by readers to texts—are in fact constructed in conversation with a classically informed...


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pp. 225-292

Works Cited

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pp. 293-304


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pp. 305-311

E-ISBN-13: 9780823248636
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823226962
Print-ISBN-10: 0823226964

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 290490877
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Voluptuous Philosophy

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Representation (Philosophy).
  • Materialism.
  • Literature -- History and criticism.
  • Literature -- Philosophy.
  • Enlightenment -- France.
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